The Central African Republic (CAR) is mineral rich, yet historically a chronically unstable state. Its unique geostrategic position, landlocked and surrounded by the failed states of Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan, makes for a profound potentiality to affect the dynamics of African politics. More often than not, however, the Central African Republic has been an unfortunate victim of its geography, exploited and beholden to its neighbours and former colonial powers: a principal determinant defining its long and sobering fifty-three year ‘post-colonial’ history. Such states as France, Libya and Chad have historically allied themselves with various political parties or rebel factions in the CAR in pursuit of their own national interests, further exacerbating ethnic fragmentation and conflict originally resulting from the imposition and institutionalisation of arbitrary colonial boundaries by European leaders at the 1885 Berlin Conference. Accordingly, the Central African Republic’s “Bush War” and the overwhelming of the capital city of Bangui that subsequently led to the ascension of rebel leader Michel Djotodia to the office of president last month with de facto authoritarian power represents only the most recent, albeit perhaps the most pertinent, chapter of its history.
Although the CAR has been a natural target for extremists (owing to its large mineral deposits) and has experienced nearly constant political instability rivaled only by a handful of failed states, it has received very little media attention in the West. In fact, with the exception of Mali, regional media coverage and public interest in the ongoing political revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East have seemingly overshadowed any and all events that have transpired in Sub-Saharan Africa. While understandable, the fact still remains: the very same underlying socio-economic factors that facilitated the ‘Arab Spring’- corruption, unemployment, etc.- are in many cases far worse in Sub-Saharan Africa. In the case of the CAR’s Bush War, which originally began with a rebellion by the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity (UFDR) after François Bozize seized power from the democratically elected president in 2003, conflict has been waged intermittently for the better part of a decade. In early 2004, however, the self-entitled rebel coalition “Séléka”, who currently hold political control of the country and is comprised of fighters from far-flung northeastern areas of the CAR, Chad and Sudan, undertook a campaign of guerrilla warfare. This is important if only for the fact that, as in the case of the Tuareg rebels in Mali whose importance to the civil war cannot be overstated, this region of the CAR is isolated, historically marginalised (people from southern CAR frequently refer to all north-easterners as “foreigners”) and lacks governance resulting in permeable borders and widespread trafficking of arms. Significantly, rebel leader Michel Djotodia and soon to be president also hails from this remote and largely Muslim region; in short, Djotodia’s cultural background and time spend living in Chad were instrumental in uniting the rebel factions under the single heading of Séléka.
Despite Djotodia’s promise to hold elections in a year, official reactions to Bozize’s official overthrow on the 24 March 2013, have been quick and of a critical nature. The UN emphasised that rebel factions responsible for the deaths of South African soldiers, the only state to respond to requests of military intervention aid (admittedly in defense of South African mining interests), and “those responsible for violations and abuses of international humanitarian and human rights law, including violence against civilians, sexual and gender-based violence and recruitment and use of children in armed conflict, must be held accountable”. Moreover, the African Union and the UN jointly condemned the regime change as illegitimate and were quick to insist that an interim executive should be formulated with the purpose of electing a temporary president of the CAR. Although the international community is, and indeed should be, skeptical of Séléka’s aforementioned grandiose promise and supposed commitment to democratic elections, the recent international action, while undoubtedly well intentioned, has often lacked in results. The most recent talks in Libreville this year between rebels and the former CAR government lasted all of three days, compared to months in the past. When one takes into consideration the internal factions of the rebel coalition, it is childish, indeed almost comical, to assume there was adequate time for proper dialogue and critical self-reflection. Furthermore, the dialogues were ridden with a lack of trust, indicative of the fact that the level of long-term commitment will in all likelihood be marginal, thereby precipitating a return to the unsustainable status quo. The international community, regional and global IGOs alike, must learn that such short-term fixes disguised as peacebuilding and initiative of mediated conflict resolution are often built on inaccurate assumptions.
With regard to the topic of human security, since mid-2006, the CAR has neither been governed nor governable. At the request of Séléka, the French army and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) coalition force, ‘MICOPAX’, have recently began patrolling the streets of the capital city of Bangui. The lawlessness and lack of accountability pervasive in the CAR combined with a decade of civil war has unsurprisingly caused an alarmingly large humanitarian crisis. According to Human Rights Watch, hundreds of civilians were killed, more than 10,000 houses burned and approximately 212,000 persons have fled their homes to live deep in the bush in northern Central African Republic. Moreover, increasingly large numbers of unpublicised refugees have made their way across the border into countries such countries as the Democratic Republic of Congo, all of which face longstanding accusations of egregious human rights violations. This had led to a drastic loss in humanitarian access. These desolate and desperate conditions, by no means confined to the CAR, often pervasive among its neighbouring states across Sub-Saharan Africa, provide at least one possible explanation as to why the Arab Spring has not been followed by an African Spring. To be brief: first, a legacy of failed states has undoubtedly shaped perceptions about political reform. Second, profound ethnic, linguistic and religious divisions exist in sub-Saharan Africa, which tend to be stronger than any sense of national unity. This is in stark contrast to Tunisia, Egypt and Libya where the vast majorities of citizens practiced Sunni Islam and were united by the common language of Arabic. Finally, the Arab Spring was heavily reliant on social media and the Internet, resultants of the process of urbanisation that sub-Saharan Africa has yet to undergo.